How has COVID-19 affected demolition projects?

In case you missed the recent edition of Demolition and Recycling International, Richard Vann explored the rapidly changing demolition industry during the global Coronavirus pandemic.

Read the full article here…

Every time I pen some thoughts for a column, there’s always the chance, of course, that the external landscape may have changed by the time my views appear in print. Over the last few years, I’ve frequently been asked to speak about Brexit, for example, and consequently tried to cover multiple scenarios to ensure the commentary remains relevant.

Fast forward to the situation we currently find ourselves in – the global battle against Coronavirus – and the landscape has never been so fluid.

Everyone is perhaps tired of hearing the fact that we’re experiencing ‘unprecedented times’, but of course that admittedly overused phrase is incredibly true. That said, when planning for the future, savvy organisations try to anticipate various eventualities – from best to worst case. So, while we’re perhaps facing extremities of planning that some demolition firms will unsurprisingly not have encountered before, we must stick to the same underlying principles we’re used to.

I’ve always said that no two projects are ever the same in the world of demolition, and COVID-19 has not changed that. In addition to all existing EHS protocols, adherence to safe distancing regulations must be the non-negotiable baseline, of course, and continued monitoring of evolving guidance is paramount. But there are then multiple other project-specific factors to accommodate too – they have not been eradicated because of the virus.

Speaking from personal experience over the past few weeks, we’ve seen some projects adapt rapidly to a ‘new normal’ and approximately 70% of our sites have remained open as a result. Elsewhere, other works have stopped entirely, for the foreseeable future. There hasn’t been a singular method of coping with the pressures being faced.

We’re currently supporting a UK pharmaceutical client with a project in a live and operational environment, for instance, and the schedule here remains almost uninterrupted. In the first few weeks of lockdown, we continued to develop our decommissioning specifications and plans remotely, rather than on site. And, when it was absolutely necessary to physically inspect the plant, for example, the client arranged a system to visit the workface on our behalf and feed back information.

This client is considered an essential business so has kept a core production team on site, meaning visits to site could be organised relatively swiftly. We’ve maintained regular contact via video calls throughout, when not in the same physical location, so that we can continue to consult with one another, and this media-rich form of communication has worked well. We hope to have a full team back on site in the next week or two, with social distancing measures naturally in place.

Other sites closed for approximately a couple of weeks when Boris Johnson first announced the lockdown. In these instances – typically projects at the physical decontamination, dismantling or demolition phase – such ‘pauses’ provided an important opportunity to take stock and devise plans with contractors and clients. These included introducing upgraded security measures and temporary make-safe operations. With the duration of the suspension period being unknown, a range of flexible care and maintenance regimes also had to be considered.

Again, every scenario has been different. However, generally speaking, the priority has been to reduce the number of people on site to the absolute minimum, while being careful to prevent any skills gaps arising. On this note, it is important to stress that the usual project safety considerations must remain paramount – COVID-19 or no COVID-19. A proficiently skilled team is always required to carry out the work, so now is not the time to cut corners. If the work can’t be carried out safely with a condensed team, it cannot go ahead.

There are projects elsewhere that stopped completely, either for reasons such as this or because the client was more comfortable allowing schedules to be reframed. The current commodity value of scrap metal has come into play too, as well as logistical difficulties associated with moving materials.

We are now seeing positive movement on the majority of these sites though. The biggest changes have centred upon access and accommodation arrangements for staff, so that we have utmost confidence that people can shower, eat and use WCs without compromising social distancing guidance.

Given our international presence, we have had to remain abreast with slightly differing regulations from one country to the next. But this is the way we always work – whether we’re in the thick of a health crisis or not. We must be respectful of every client situation, cultural variations and so on. But whatever the local rules and customs may be, we will never put people at risk.